Call to expand protection in Coral Sea

Environment Minister Tony Burke is under growing pressure to expand the marine park planned for northern Australia’s Coral Sea, with MPs from his own side calling for stronger protection of the reefs and tropical waters in the wake of a massive public campaign.

The waters, known for their rich coral and marine life, are already set to become part of the world’s largest marine protected area, covering 989,842 square kilometres, under a draft plan Mr Burke released in November.

But the draft plan falls short of what conservationists and some Labor MPs want, with about half the protected area still allowing both recreational and commercial fishing.

The public consultation on the draft plan has seen a flood of responses, with nearly 500,000 submissions from around the world, more than 99 per cent of which call for greater protection.

The protected area would cover offshore waters from just north of the tip of Cape York down to around Bundaberg and extend from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park out to the limit of Australia’s exclusive economic zone.

The area is rich in hard and soft corals, sponges, algae, fish communities and other creatures such as nautilus and sea stars. Many of the reefs are known for their high densities of shark species.

Mr Burke acknowledged the massive response showed there were strong feelings in the community about the need for more protection.

”I’ve never seen anything like it … I can’t think of the last time you had nearly half a million people actively engaged in an environmental decision. The issue of the Coral Sea has really captured the imagination of a lot of Australians,” he said.

Victorian Labor MP Kelvin Thomson told parliament this week the draft plan was a good step but needed to go further, including offering protection for the Osprey Reef and the Shark Reef.

”The number of reefs to be protected from the impact of commercial and recreational fishing … and I would like to see it bolstered,” he said.

Queensland MP Graham Perrett agreed. ”We are in animated discussion with Minister Burke about where the actual lines on the map are,” he said.

”I’m optimistic, but there’s more discussions to be had.”

Imogen Zethoven of the Pew Environment Group called for most of the area to be given the highest level of protection – a marine national park – to protect the reefs.

This should be accompanied by a financial assistance package for affected fishing businesses.

Australian Conservation Foundation chief execute Don Henry said the sea’s coral reefs were ”vitally important for the area’s marine species, providing breeding, feeding and nesting grounds for fish, sharks, turtles, migrating whales and seabirds”.

He added: ”The government’s plan to exclude the majority of coral reefs from the marine national park zone risks leaving the most diverse and dynamic habitats of the Coral Sea without adequate protection from commercial, charter and game fishing.”